Thursday, July 10, 2008

Have U.S. Drivers Reached The Filling Point of No Return?

It took some time, but Americans are responding to rising energy costs by driving smaller cars and cutting back on miles they log on the road.

The persistence of high energy prices plays a role. It takes time for consumers to make changes that lower energy use. That isn't so much because people first shrug off high energy costs. They can and do react quickly. But the most important factors in energy-consumption changes come only with time -- buying a new refrigerator or a smaller house or trading in a sport-utility vehicle for a smaller car.

"What we're seeing now is prices have been high for a while and consumers have become convinced high prices are here to stay. That's given them time to make changes, such as the car they buy," said economist Christopher Knittel of the University of California, Davis. "That has larger effects than, 'Well, I'm just not going to drive to the mall this week.'"

This is big. We are going into a massive cultural shift that will see Americans not only changing the way they drive, but how they interact with their local community. I daresay this may even convince folks of how spoilt and entitled we've been, as we have clearcut our way through fossil fuels with our massive SUVs and McMansions and the like with nary a glance at what the consequences are for the rest of the human populace. May we finally experience even a small bit of what our ignorance has wrought on the rest of the world, and may we begin to learn from it (and turn it around before Wall-E comes to pass!)

And if you still feel like complaining after that spiel, chin up! Get a grip on yourself about our paltry almost $5 per gallon, and fall on your knees to praise jeebus -- you could be living in Britain!

At $9 Per Gallon, British Driving Habits Change

Many environmentalists have quietly rejoiced that the high cost of fuel is apparently achieving what governments have largely failed to: a reduction in carbon emissions.

But not all subscribe to this logic. Tom Burke, an environmental scientist and former government adviser, says high pump prices "inevitably fall hardest on people who can least bear them, instead of on governments who took wrong decisions."

"You can't just say it's a good thing that prices go up and people will do more sensible things," he says. "Older people, people already at the bottom of the pile, will find it harder ... to live and anyone who welcomes that has lost their humanity."

BTW, I am one of those folks who has "lost their humanity." I do hate high gas prices for the same fundamental reason everyone else does -- it makes my life less convenient -- but I do secretly rejoice at the same time. And yes, for those of you keeping score at home, it is easy for me to rejoice. I live in an area with ample public transit, I am healthy enough to ride a bike and walk, and I have plenty of shops carrying the necessities within walking distance of my apartment.

But no matter: I still think gas prices being so high is a good thing. And more to the point, I don't think we can be so simplistic as to say welcoming high gas prices equals not caring about the suffering of the people on the bottom of the pile. What a ridiculous idea. To focus on environmentalist glee over something that will actually change the bad behavior of millions of people, rather than focusing on the failures of public policy to address the inevitable shitpickle that was looming and now exists because our insatiable hunger for non-renewable resources is simply rhetoric, and lack of foresight.

This is also what capitalism wrought, baby. Nothing is perfect in our capitalist society. But even so, many folks are anti social programs and anti spending for community benefit until it hits them straight in the gut. I have no patience for people who are Capitalist when they get the long straw and Socialist when they don't get their way. Anyway, you work for policy with what you have been dealt; environmentalists have been doing that very thing in an unresponsive populace for years. And with what we have been dealt, change seems to only come from discomfort.

Any uncomfortable change (read: one that makes us evaluate need vs. want) that is good for the whole of our society and our world will inevitably hit some of the most economically fragile first -- whether it's paying a living wage for goods and services (buh-bye Wal-Mart), or getting in line with Europe and reining in our entitlement around fossil fuels. The key to leaving the least amount of people behind is demanding and working for social programs, and being community-minded.

There are poor, sick, and old people everywhere, and I don't see the preponderance of said populations elsewhere being used as an excuse to not do the right thing for the environment and our future as humans. In addition to the obvious -- exploring and implementing alternative fuels -- demand better public transit, build communities that incorporate necessary businesses within them, and get to know grandma or your neighbor and take them to the store or to work with you.

It takes time to change, but we're on our way.

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